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`Home Ec' Moves With the Times

Besides stirring and stitching, home-economics programs try to teach broader life skills

By Jae-Bok YoungStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 7, 1992



BOSTON

`JUST because you're a woman, you're expected to innately know how to cook and sew," says Ann Holsinger, a former home economist in Hanover, Mass. In the past, this stereotype projected the image of home economists as people - mostly women - who merely focused on stirring and stitching.

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But in today's world, a large number of women are seeking professional careers in such traditionally male fields as medicine and law. Not many women are interested in home economics, an area of studies that was popular in the '50s and '60s. Faced with this challenge, practitioners of home economics are restructuring their field in hope of attracting more people.

"When I went to high school 20 years ago, the home-economics programs were geared toward women who would not be going to college but would be getting married and starting a family. [But] right now, the focus is more on career development and socialization," says Kristen O'Brien, a home economist and spokeswoman for USA Rice Council, a nonprofit organization promoting the consumption of United States-grown rice in the United States and abroad.

About 260 universities and colleges in the US currently offer home-economics courses, often dubbed "human environmental science" or "consumer and family economics."

Home economics usually includes five areas of concentration: food and nutrition; family studies; home management; home furnishings and design; and textiles and clothing.

"Home-economics classes across the country are changing with the times," says Alicia Montecalvo, spokeswoman for Future Homemakers of America (FHA), an organization for junior-high and high-school home-economics students nationwide. "Not so many of our programs focus specifically around cooking and sewing," she says. Instead they focus on leadership development and career exploration.

"Home economics is more needed than ever before, given the family crisis in the society," says Sherry Trella, coordinator of home-economics programs for public schools in Cambridge, Mass. Ms. Trella is designing a new course called "Life Studies," a program that will focus on different styles of families and parenting in the community to help teach students how to avoid or cope with a breakdown in families.

Some high schools offer courses with names like "Contemporary Living" that deal with topics ranging from drug abuse, teen pregnancy, and teen suicide to family budgeting and parenting.

Ms. Trella says male students often are reluctant to join classes like sewing. Recently, she was helping a group of eighth graders make flags of different countries. This was the students' first time using a sewing machine. Some of the boys said that sewing was only for girls. She told them, "Some of the greatest people who sew are tailors. Those are usually men." That ended the boys' reluctance and they did a great job, she says.

Some high-school and junior-high boys are interested in taking cooking classes. This course is popular with kids because they can have parties with their friends at home, Ms. Holsinger says.

About 15 percent of FHA's 269,000 members are male, Ms. Montecalvo says, and the number is increasing.